Success and the Myth of Grades

School influences one’s real-world success.  Now, this is true–but not in the ways that one would hope.  I grew up being pushed–driven–to succeed in school.  Even before I was old enough for school, my parents pushed me to learn, to read, etc.

In school, I quickly learned that it was absurdly simple to get the coveted A-grades that everyone pushed for.  Graded work–especially competitive graded work–creates an environment where the grade is more important than the work done to achieve it.

So rather than take risks and try something interesting, students are more likely to play it safe to achieve a higher grade.  This effectively curtails any expansive, challenging work undertaken by students on their own, beyond what is assigned to them.

As far as excelling at “grade level”–the very idea of “grade level” is bogus.  Who decided that multiplication was a 3rd grade skill, for example?  100 years ago what constituted 5th grade level work would stump a good deal of college freshmen today!

If a kid today is getting “good grades”, what it really means is that he’s good at jumping through the hoops of public schooling.  He might know how to write an A+ book report, but he might not be aware of how to think critically about the content of that book as it applies to situations outside of graded academia.

For the “smart kids” (however we’re defining that), getting straight As might translate into never taking risks or challenges, because that might threaten his GPA.  Even in college–how many students choose the easy, “safe” topic for their term papers instead of choosing what lights their passion–but might be controversial or harder to prove their point with research?

In my opinion, this has the danger (or perhaps, the socially engineered result) of turning out people who are more likely to uphold the status quo than challenge it; more likely to submit to authority or seek “expert” advice without question; more likely to passively wait for instruction than figure something out on their own.

In our society we speak admirably of the self-starter, the visionary, the go-getter–but these sorts are becoming more and more rare every day.  Those who truly seek knowledge will not be concerned with letter-grades or a culturally defined version of “success”–they’ll be out there taking risks–and most likely failing multiple times–to better their understanding and improve their results.

School does not teach people to succeed in these terms–only in terms of A+ and “good job!”  You have to be willing and able to fail–a LOT–in order to truly push the boundaries of what you’re capable of.


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